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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Taliban Won't Be Pushover

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In one week, the situation in Afghanistan has changed dramatically. The radical Muslim Taliban militia that controlled up to 90 percent of Afghan territory, has collapsed and abandoned nearly all major cities, including the capital Kabul. But are the Taliban and its foreign supporters -- Osama bin Laden or his al-Qaida terrorist organization -- truly on the verge of extinction?

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan ruthlessly. Life was miserable and made even worse by a terrible drought. Bin Laden and his men were genuinely hated by most Afghans as foreigners mingling in local affairs. However, the apparent fall of the Taliban was not the result of a popular revolution, nor was it the direct result of an offensive by the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. The Taliban forces withdrew from Kabul and from several other major cities hours or sometimes days before the first Northern Alliance patrols arrived.

The U.S. air campaign was, of course, a decisive factor. Carpet bombing decimated the best Taliban troops holding entrenched positions and they were unable to hit back at the high-flying planes.

Afghanistan is not an industrialized country. It's even hard to call it "preindustrial." The rules of war in Europe do not apply in Afghanistan. The major cities are not a source of military strength, are not economic centers and do not produce wealth or armaments to run a war. The cities of Afghanistan are not a strategic asset, but rather a liability, as the Russians found out in the 1980s, and as the present anti-terrorist coalition will soon find out to their regret.

The Taliban were not only decimated by bombing, they were also running out of food. Two weeks ago the Taliban tried to stop volunteers from Pakistan crossing the border to fight, because there were not sufficient provisions to keep them through the winter. Presumably there was no food for the major cities, as delivery of international aid was hampered by U.S. bombing, and hunger could have caused a genuine anti-Taliban revolution. Now feeding the Afghan population is the sole political and logistical responsibility of the U.S.-led coalition. If there are food riots, they will be anti-Western in character.

The true source of military and economic power in Afghanistan lies in the countryside, where opium poppies are grown. Even more important (and profitable) is the control of export routes by which Afghan heroin reaches Europe and the United States. By withdrawing from the major cities, the Taliban have preserved a large force of dedicated fighters. This puts the Taliban and al-Qaida in a strong position to dominate the heroin trade following the fall of their government.

Last year, the Taliban leader, Mohammad Omar, issued an order banning poppy growing, and only the Northern Alliance, reportedly, continued to produce and export drugs via Tajikistan and Russia. It is also reported that most of the previous year's harvest of opium has been stockpiled in Taliban hideouts near the Pakistani border.

Now the Taliban -- no longer a government seeking international recognition but an anti-Western guerrilla force -- can go straight into big business, making millions, if not billions of dollars from the heroin trade. Drug money will support an unending guerrilla campaign against the U.S.-led peacekeeping force and there will be enough left for al-Qaida to run its international terrorist operations. Also, the Taliban now have the "infidels" where they want them -- not up in the sky, but on the ground in Afghanistan.

It's now clear that Afghanistan will split into a maze of warlord-led tribal fiefdoms -- each existing almost entirely on opium growing and the looting of international aid -- with a weak figurehead central government in Kabul. The loose multinational peacekeeping force that is now being deployed in Afghanistan will hardly be able to cope with the problems. Even destroying the poppy fields from the sky will not be easy, since a lot will probably be grown by official Western allies from the Northern Alliance or Pushtun tribes that claim to be anti-Taliban.

The main problem faced by the Russian military in Afghanistan was that they never knew for sure who was their ally and who not. The Russians bombed all and soon all were indeed enemies. Even if the U.S.-led allies are lucky and succeed in killing Omar and bin Laden in the coming days or weeks, this will hardly prevent the emergence of a bloody quagmire in Afghanistan with a lethal mix of radical Islam, narcotics trading and international terrorism.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst.